Monday, 30 November 2009

"The X Factor" format hits publishing

I am here to remark on an atrocity witnessed by Mark Hendy, one of my authors, and myself today in Westfield shopping centre. We were there to promote our books discreetly to the bookshops that operate there and made it to the second floor before our attention was caught by a microphoned voice ringing around the downstairs area.

We looked over the balcony and were temporarily confused by what we saw. A comedian was stood on a stage made entirely of very large books and there were two large screens on each side of him vomiting 'inspirational' messages and ideas for the crowd, such as 'Will there be danger?'. An author was sat at the back with a laptop, smiling and tapping away, while people with official STAFF badges kept a fairly small crowd within speaking distance of the comedian. TV cameras were also there, belonging to the organisers rather than a network.

We listened to what was being said and phrases such as "You are the ones writing this book, they are your ideas and who knew that you could come shopping and leave the shopping centre as published authors!?" were being directed at the onlookers. Then it clicked - this was the publishing equivalent of the X Factor. The audience, looking a bit bewildered and starry eyed, gave spur of the moment suggestions about what a main character could get up to and, by the time we arrived, they seemed to have decided that he was at war. A young lad's suggestion of a baby being kidnapped was professionally swept under the carpet as the announcer excitedly mentioned that 'he loved the fact we are at war!'.

I had to speak to one of the official looking staff members to see what was really happening behind the glamour and mystery of publishing shoppers' ideas, so I armed myself with questions about the real facts and sought to find out who was behind it all.

I was told that the comedian was 'a comedian' and the author was called 'Alex, Something' and that it was designed to get people to be creative and was part of a worldwide promotion which had previously involved drumming. The burning question was then answered - this was a promotion by American Express. Wholly funded and produced by them, they had set out to 'tap into people's ideas and get them using their creativity'. Incidentally, there was also a sign warning that anything that was said or done at the event was the property of American Express and could be used, altered or manipulated in any way to be used however they pleased.

I left the event before they reconvened for the final chapter, absolutely furious that they had cheapened the idea of publishing and had promised to turn all of these lifeless publicity hungry shoppers into real writers. This has already happened with music (X Factor), Theatre (Joseph/Technicoloured dream coat), and Dancing (Strictly Come Dancing) and I had no idea it would ever impact me directly. I am completely aware of recording artists' struggles to get deserved publicity since the X Factor started and have been slightly disillusioned by the charts, particularly at Christmas when it used to be a massive surprise, and I always felt for those who won't make it when they clearly record fantastic songs.

The main reason for my trip to London was to promote my publishing company, which has taken five years to get to where it is now and is slowly starting to capture the imagination of the visitors to our website. We have walked for miles over three days, visiting countless shops and building relationships with them to try to sell copies of publications which, in themselves, take the best part of a year to produce after writing, re-writing, editing, proof reading, type setting...

To come across a massively wealthy Credit Card company stomping over all of our hard work by holding an event as tacky and worthless as this makes a lot of our work seem redundant. Yes, anyone can be a published author. Anyone can write a small section of a story and claim a small piece of a finished article, but being a published author isn't about that. It's about putting in the work, burning the candle at both ends, finding time to get your work perfect and then promoting it.

As we say at Lyvit, 'there are a billion unwritten books out there. There are a million that have been written, but not published.' Unfortunately it is the responsibility of the writer to get their story out there, not to cheapen it by combining some of their ideas with other peoples' and claiming they are now published writers.

Put your words down. Slog your guts out. Stay up late. Keep your notes with you. Believe in yourself. Prepare yourself for failure. Ultimately, though, convince yourself you can make it. Because you can.